Lake Roland is a Really Wonderful Spot for a Beginning Birder



Double-crested Cormorant at Lake Roland, 7/19/2016

I feel very lucky to live a mere ten minute drive from Lake Roland. There are two entrances, one of which is at the Falls Road Light Rail Stop. This entrance leads to a boardwalk that enters the park with the Light Rail tracks to the left and dense, to light, forest on the right. As a new birder, that walk is an outstanding training resource. In the few months I’ve been birding with an aim to learn and improve, I’ve begun to recognize nearly every bird on the boardwalk, by sight and sound. Each visit I can reliably expect to see Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers (an early challenge is learning to tell these nearly identical birds apart), Tufted Titmice (or is it Titmouses?), Great-crested Flycatchers (though they have been noticeably absent my last two visits), Northern Cardinals, Acadian Flycatchers, and Goldfinches. I recognize them at a glance now, and know their calls very well, which is exciting. Now, on that short walk, new sounds or shapes stick out like sore thumbs, and get me very excited.

For instance, last night when I visited I heard, for the first time on the boardwalk, the unmistakable song of a Wood Thrush. Unfortunately it was too deep for me to spot, but I’ve grown confident in that bird’s call. Having not heard that call yet at Lake Roland, it jumped out at me among the calls I am now used to. Another bird that really stood out, that I saw at Lake Roland for the first time on 7/15, was the Carolina Wren. I had not actually seen this bird yet, so it was a lifer, and it was bouncing around right near the end of the boardwalk. There were two of them, and right away I knew I was seeing something for the first time. I had read on recent lists that birders at Lake Roland had seen Carolina Wrens, so I guessed right away this might be one, but I am not so good at this that I didn’t doubt myself. I took as many notes about the bird as I could before it was gone, and then consulted Merlin (an Android app) and my bird guide before considering it a new life list bird. I also got to hear its call three or four times, which pretty much confirmed it.

I do wish I had the equipment to photograph the birds I am seeing, but there is something quite special about the fleeting experience of birding without a camera. Sure, I’ll try to snap a photo with my phone and binoculars (like the Double-crested Cormorant above) when a bird is being very still, or isn’t a risk of flying off for the next couple minutes, but otherwise I see what I see, and if I want to see it again, I have to come back. It’s nice, and always rewarding. Like the Indigo Bunting. I’ve now see the fellow four times, and each one was just as exciting as the first.

I did, however, have a Downy Woodpecker land in small tree not three feet from the boardwalk last night, so was able to capture a decent video of it.

And one other bird that truly stood out was the Double-crested Cormorant near the dam. I hadn’t seen anything like it in the water yet, and was very excited that it wasn’t really doing much, so I had time to use H’s stroller as a tripod of sorts and snap a few photos through my binoculars.

As far as birding goes, for me anyway, it was a great time.

A Great Afternoon at Lake Roland


(Two Red-shouldered Hawks at Lake Roland, 7/15/16)

Work closed early on last Friday, so I took advantage and headed over to Lake Roland for some birding. I saw many more birds than I expected to for 2pm, including the above Red-Shouldered Hawks. I snapped that photo with my phone through my binoculars, and it didn’t turn out half bad.

I also was able to do a quick sketch of the Great Blue Heron I saw, which I spruced up in Photoshop (with some help from Nat).

great blue heron

(Great Blue Heron, Lake Roland, 7/15/16)

Here’s the full checklist from the afternoon:

Date: 7/15/2016
Lake Roland Boardwalk/Park
Time: 2:oopm – 4:00pm

1 Great Blue Heron
1 Black-crowned Night-Heron
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
1 Red-tailed Hawk
2 Chimney Swift
3 Downy Woodpecker
3 Hairy Woodpecker
2 Eastern Wood-Pewee
3 Acadian Flycatcher
2 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Warbling Vireo
1 Red-eyed Vireo
1 Carolina Chickadee
6 Tufted Titmouse
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
3 Carolina Wren
7 Eastern Bluebird
1 Gray Catbird
1 Common Yellowthroat
10 Northern Cardinal
1 Indigo Bunting
10 Common Grackle
2 Brown-headed Cowbird
3 House Finch
6 American Goldfinch

Baltimore Oriole


(Photo credit: Tyler Cone)

When my brother Tyler and his wife Andrea stopped by Baltimore for a visit, we decided to take a short hike at Lake Roland. There had been a Baltimore Oriole nest there for a while, and Tyler brought along his camera and lens to try to snap a picture of it. The above shot is one of several he was able to capture.

Until Nathalie and I began getting into birding, we had never seen a Baltimore Oriole, though similar to my Indigo Bunting story, we ‘always kept an eye out’. It wasn’t until one of our first solo birding trips that we finally saw not one, but three Baltimore Orioles way at the top of the trees along Lake Roland (just near the elephant sculpture along the trail). I’ve wondered if those same Orioles were the ones that eventually nested in the park.

Our most recent Oriole sighting was this past weekend when we spotted three juveniles fluttering about in the trees just beside Acorn Hill. They were about three feet away at their closest, which was extremely exciting.

Since we began, I’ve been interested in snapping photos of the birds we see, however the equipment I would need is far too cost-prohibitive right now. Still, I want some way to record at least some of our sightings each time we go out beyond an eBird checklist, so I’ve begun bringing a sketchbook along, and tackling the challenge of sketching birds in nature. Here’s the first one, an Eastern Bluebird from Lake Roland last night.

Eastern Blue Bird Lake Roland 7122016
Eastern Bluebird, Lake Roland, July 12th, 2016

Another interesting note was the large number of Reclusive Pokemon Go Players we saw. This species used to be quite rare, and it was fascinating to see them venture so brazenly into the open in all areas of Lake Roland, right on the boardwalk, inside the pavilions, and even in the dog park. I wonder if they are here to stay, or if they will meander off, never to be seen again.

Recent checklist:

Date: 7/12/2016
Lake Roland Boardwalk/Park
Time: 6:30pm – 8:15pm

Mallard  8
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Mourning Dove  1
Chimney Swift  1
Red-headed Woodpecker  1
Acadian Flycatcher  1     Call only
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Tree Swallow  2
Barn Swallow  5
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Eastern Bluebird  3
American Robin  15
Gray Catbird  4
Northern Cardinal  3
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
American Goldfinch  1

My Quest for an Indigo Bunting

(Photo by: Gareth Raspberry)

I’ve always enjoyed birds, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that I had a bird ‘quest’. While hiking at the Cylburn Arboretum, Nathalie and I stopped by the Nature Museum. Among the collection of natural history objects housed within is a large variety of taxidermied birds. I had never seen or heard of many of the birds on display, and I was fascinated. One bird that stood out to me was the Indigo Bunting. I read on the the placard that this beautiful bird is a regular in Maryland, even Baltimore, and can be seen right there at Cylburn. I decided right there that I was going to see one, a living one, as soon as possible.

Not knowing anything, really, about birds or looking for specific birds, I simply ‘kept my eyes open’ whenever Nat or I went hiking. Years passed, and I never saw my elusive Indigo Bunting. I admit that I wasn’t trying particularly hard, or putting much effort into researching its habitat or song (though I did listen to the song before each hike we took). We’d go hiking and I’d just hope to spot one along the trail.

In April of this year, Nathalie thought it’d be fun if we attended one of the Patterson Park Audubon Center bird walks. My father and my sister were in town, so Dad stayed home with Harrison while Nathalie, Amy and I went bird watching at the park. We borrowed binoculars from the group, since we didn’t own any ourselves. As we drove up I wondered if perhaps today I’d see an Indigo Bunting (spoiler: I didn’t).

The bird-guides at Patterson Park Audubon Center are extraordinarily knowledgeable about all things bird, and their excitement and passion hooked me immediately. It was the height of migration season (a fact I didn’t even know on the drive over–yeah, that’s how new I am), and the park was swarming with bird life. We saw several exciting birds, including Oven Birds, Black-Throated Blue Warblers, Shrikes, Kestrals, a Blue-Winged Teal, and on and on. I was sad when it was time to hand back the binoculars, and knew right away that this was a hobby I was going to fall into, hard.

That weekend I ordered a pair of binoculars, and the following weekend Nathalie and I embarked on our first of many ‘solo’ bird walks. It’s been a few months now, and we are still very green, but we’ve made some new friends and seen more birds in that time than either of had ever seen, or paid attention to, in all our lives. We quickly began to get the hang of birding, at a novice level of course, and I thought surely, certainly, of course I will see an Indigo Bunting now!

But each time we were heading home from bird watching together, the Indigo Bunting was not on my list. I’d get messages from a fellow new birder (though he’s been doing it a year or more longer than me) from time to time asking “See the Indigo yet?”, and each time I had to say no.

Until the morning of July 4th at Oregon Ridge Nature Center. Nathalie and Harrison and I drove there bright and early, ready for a fun morning of birding along the trails, and when we parked the car and were getting Harrison ready in the back-carrier, Nathalie’s ears perked up.

“Did you hear that,” she asked.

And I had. Right near us, in the field behind the parking lot, was the unmistakable song of my elusive bird.

But we needed to get H into that back-carrier, and he was getting fussy.

“Just go, quick!” Nat said and pressed the binoculars into my chest.

I ran as fast as I could out of the parking lot, past the chicken coup they have at the edge of the field, and into the field. Two goldfinches flew right in front of my face the moment I was in the open (and I noted to myself to mark them down later). I listened for the song, and tried desperately to pinpoint where it was coming from. It sounded high up, and I was afraid that even if I did locate it, it would be a black silhouette against the rising sun.

Nathalie was at the edge of the parking lot, where it drops off into the field, and a large hickory tree rose up to the left of her. Midway up that tree, perched on a bare branch, was a bird. I brought the binoculars to my eyes, adjusted the focus, and saw for the first time the beautiful cobalt blue of the Indigo Bunting.

“Got it!” I shouted.

Together, Nathalie and I saw three more of them that day. And we saw two more this very morning off the Lake Roland Boardwalk. Seems they’re everywhere now, or maybe we just figured out how to pay attention better, be more patient, and look in the right places for the right birds.

So far, birding has been a rewarding and challenging hobby. We’re complete newbies, so every bird we see is exciting, every call or song we recognize now makes us feel pretty awesome. “Acadian Flycatcher!” Nat will call out, even though it’s nowhere in sight. “Eastern Wood-Pewee!” “Gnat-Catcher!” Harrison seems to have fun out in nature too, though his favorite things to see so far are all the dogs being walked. “Da da da da!” he calls out at each one.

I don’t expect any of my future birding posts to be this long, so thanks for sticking with me if you did.

Here’s the list of birds we saw today:

Location: Lake Roland Boardwalk/Park
Time: 7:00am – 10:00am

 1 Turkey Vulture
2 Broad-winged Hawk
1 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Mourning Dove
2 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
4 Downy Woodpecker
1 Northern Flicker
2 Eastern Wood-Pewee
2 Acadian Flycatcher
4 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Red-eyed Vireo
2 American Crow
3 Fish Crow
2 Barn Swallow
1 Carolina Chickadee
5 Tufted Titmouse
8 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
7 American Robin
7 Northern Cardinal
2 Indigo Bunting
4 Red-winged Blackbird
2 Common Grackle
3 Baltimore Oriole
5 American Goldfinch